Many filmgoers have long been aware of the dual nature of Bruce Willis. Which Willis will show up in the movie they are about to watch? There’s the Willis that seems engaged with the film, like in Looper, Twelve Monkeys, and Moonrise Kingdom. Then there’s the phoning-it-in Willis that stars in subpar action thrillers and other cash-grab vehicles, like G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Red, and seemingly hundreds of titles littering Netflix queues like a cautionary tale of saying “yes” too often. But a new blog post suggests there are yet two more layers to the Willis mystique, one tied between postmodernism and holding up the patriarchal status quo.
Over at the Oscilloscope Laboratories blog, Anthony Kaufman has written a post titled “White Guys Always Win: The Allure And Legacy Of Bruce Willis.” In it, the writer explores this dichotomy within the Willis mystique, delineating between the fourth wall breaking, constantly smirking figure and a symbol for a white man succeeding over systems and defending the honor of minorities and women. That first version of Willis, the smirking everyman who speaks directly to viewers, is an example of a postmodern detachment, argues Kaufman. In fact,
Such reflexivity wasn’t new in the late ’80s/early ’90s; see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Last Action Hero. But for Willis, it became his identity, reappearing again in the intertextuality of the Die Hard movies (“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” he asks in Die Hard 2) and the vast number of fiction films and TV shows in which Bruce Willis appears as himself (or some version of himself): The Player (1992), TV’s Mad About You (1997), Ocean’s Twelve (2004), Nancy Drew (2007), What Just Happened (2008), and I’m Still Here (2010). One of the entertainment industry’s running gags is to continually cast Willis as a parody of his own persona.
But the other side of the coin, beyond that aloof persona where Willis winks at himself starting way back in Moonlighting, is a figure often used to take on inept or corrupt government systems in order to preserve the nuclear family, and usually at the detriment of minority and female characters who simply serve to make Willis characters appear that much more amazing.
And where would Willis be without so many black “sidekicks” against which he inevitably shows off his supposedly superior masculine prowess? In Die Hard, the skinny hip-hop chauffeur Argyle and the pudgy donut-eating cop Sergeant Al Powell may help out McClane, but next to them, Willis’s sturdy New York cop is a stud. Even black men cast as buff and tough such as Ving Rhames’ Masellus Wallace (Pulp Fiction), Samuel L. Jackson’s Zeus Carver (Die Hard With A Vengeance) and Damon Wayans’ football player Jimmy Dix (The Last Boy Scout) need to be aided by Willis’s sword-wielding, shotgun-firing pseudo-macho men.
And so, Kaufman posits, Willis finds himself in an odd position. His postmodern, revisionist take on the leading man who is knowingly out of his league but commiserates with his adoring viewers is juxtaposed with this very much stuck in the past figure who holds up a white man’s hegemony. Kaufman goes into greater detail on both versions of Willis and it’s a fascinating read of a frustrating character who seems to vacillate with ease between greatness and not giving a shit, while plumbing even greater thematic depths and recurring tropes in his films. Just how many layers does Willis (including his public persona and his career choices) have and how many of them seem incompatible with each other?